With Christopher Nolan’s third and apparently final Batman film only weeks away, I thought it would be fun to go back and re-watch his first two Bat-films.
Having seen so many great super-hero films in the years since 2005, it’s easy to forget just how impressive Mr. Nolan’s achievement was with Batman Begins. Finally, here was a filmmaker ready to bring to movie-screens the character of Batman that I have loved for so long in the comics, and to treat that character seriously. I love Tim Burton’s Batman, but while that’s a great film, it’s not in my mind a great depiction of the character of Batman. Then, of course, the later films descended into ridiculousness and camp. In the minds of many in the public, the Batman they knew was still the Adam West Pow! Book! Zap! version.
But Mr. Nolan took Batman seriously, and he and co-writer David S. Goyer set about to dig into the character of Batman: who he is an how he came to be. (Comic fans know, of course, that I am paraphrasing a chapter title from Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s seminal four-part story Batman: Year One, to this day the definitive origin story of Batman and a text from which Mr. Nolan and Mr. Goyer borrowed liberally for their screenplay for Batman Begins.)
The genius of Batman Begins is that you don’t spend the whole movie just waiting for Bruce Wayne to put on the cape and cowl. The details of Mr. Wayne’s adolescence, as depicted in the film, are rich and fascinating, and fully hold the audience’s attention for the first two-thirds of the movie. Indeed, it’s the final third, in which Wayne finally becomes Batman, that is the weakest part of the film, but I’ll get to that in a few moments.
I love how well-thought-out and focused the film’s script is. Mr. Nolan and Mr. Goyer seized on the idea of fear as central to Batman and Bruce Wayne. I love how the film, and the characters, continually return to that idea. Ducard (Liam Neason) constantly needles young Bruce Wayne on the subject, exhorting him to identify and conquer his fear. The choice of the Scarecrow as one of the film’s villains further plays into this subject. That’s smart screenwriting. They didn’t just choose a random villain, they chose one who really meshed with the story being told.
Speaking of villains, I love Liam Neeson’s role in the film. Yes, Liam Neeson has played this type of mentor character many, many times before. Yes, when he and Bruce Wayne are training with swords on a frozen lake I can easily imagine him with a lightsaber in his hand instead (“mind your surroundings, young Padawan!”), but that doesn’t dilute Mr. Neeson’s great performance in a great role. There’s a nice little play on our expectations, in terms of his role versus that played by Ken Watanabe. (I’m not sure why I’m being so coy for a movie that is almost eight years old.) Let’s just say I love the character of Ra’s al Ghul and I was thrilled by his inclusion in the film, and I thought the character was well-used.
The whole film is staggeringly well-cast. I think Christian Bale is great in the central role, equally convincing and compelling as both Bruce Wayne and Batman. I know some people who absolutely hate his gravelly Batman voice, but it’s never bothered me at all. Katie Holmes has also drawn a lot of criticism as Bruce’s childhood friend Rachel Dawes, but I think she’s perfectly fine in the role. I fully buy her relationship with Bruce, and she has an innocence that works for the character. Yes, Maggie Gyllenhaal is better in The Dark Knight, but that doesn’t mean Ms. Holmes is bad.
Michael Caine is perfection as Alfred: noble and loyal, and he gets many of the film’s best lines. Gary Oldman is equal perfection as the not-yet-Commissioner (in this film he’s a Lieutenant) Gordon. He looks and sounds just the way I imagined Gordon to be. One of my biggest complaints about Batman Begins is that I wish Gordon had more to do in the film. (Batman: Year One, upon which Batman Begins is largely based, tells probably the best Jim Gordon story ever — I was sorry more of that didn’t make it into the film.)
Morgan Freeman brings great movie-star wattage to the role of Lucius Fox (not a character I ever expected to make it into a Batman film). He’s a noble saint, like many characters played by Mr. Freeman these days, but the great Mr. Freeman gives him enough of a twinkle in his eye that I don’t really mind. I like his “don’t think of me as an idiot” don’t ask/don’t tell agreement with Bruce Wayne. Tom Wilkinson is terrific as Carmine Falcone, as is Cillian Murphy as The Scarecrow. Again (am I repeating myself?) both men are extraordinarily well-cast in their roles.
Where the film stumbles a little is once Bruce Wayne dons his complete Bat-suit and the super-heroics begin. I am not a big fan of Commissioner Gordon driving the Bat-Mobile (I felt Batman and his tools should remain much more mysterious to Gordon until far further in their relationship), and I outright detest Batman’s ludicrous moral compromise at the end of “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you.” Either way, the result is the same, and Ra’s al Ghul is killed (at least, unless we see a Lazarus Pit appear in The Dark Knight Rises!), and I was shocked by Batman’s complicity in his death. That seemed wholly wrong for the character. I was also surprised that the film didn’t at all resolve the situation in the narrows, in which tens of thousands of people have been affected by the League of Assassins’ fear toxin. I am fully supportive of movies not magically resolving every single plot thread by the end, but that’s a pretty big matzah ball still hanging out there at the end of the movie (and one totally ignored, curiously, by The Dark Knight).
I love the score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. It’s hard to top Danny Elfman’s iconic theme from Tim Burton’s Batman, and wisely Mr. Zimmer and Mr. Howard don’t really attempt to do so. The themes and motifs in the music are more subtle than those of Mr. Elfman, but I love the Batman theme that weaves in and out of the soundtrack, and I love the pulsing, rhythmic drum beats that form the backbone of the theme.
The final scene of the film is a direct adaptation of the final scene of Batman: Year One, and it is just about perfect. I absolutely adore the revelation of the Joker card, and I still remember the extraordinary feeling of exhilaration and excitement for the inevitable sequel I felt when I first saw that scene in the theatres. Somewhat unfortunately, Mr. Nolan and Mr. Goyer add two extra lines onto that scene from Frank Miller’s original scene (from Batman: Year One) — the somewhat sappy moment in which Gordon tells Batman “I never said thank you” to which Bats replies “you’ll never have to.” It’s not terrible, but also not at all necessary, and I wish the film had ended on Batman’s taking the Joker card and saying “I’ll look into it.” Oh well. It’s still pretty sweet that this amazing scene from the comics made it into the film, and it’s a pretty incredible way to end the film.
Thankfully, The Dark Knight more than lived up to the expectations set by the end of Batman: Begins. I’ll be back next week to discuss that great sequel…!